Answering Questions About Singapore's Defence And Future

This article is concurrently posted on The Kent Ridge Common.

Source credit: NUS

Dr Ng Eng Hen, our current Minister for Defence, participated in a discussion last Friday titled “Defending What We Fought For”.

The title itself conjured up images of Singapore being under siege, a gleaming metropolis facing relentless threats, always being tossed against multiple challenges. It exhorts citizens to be constantly vigilant. It perpetuates the rhetoric of vulnerability that we’ve heard so many times from various government ministers.

A quick look at the seminar’s description threw up this notable and rather dramatic line: “These developments have led to the traditional and non-traditional security threats, that, if not promptly and decisively managed have the power to wipe out what we spent years to build: not just structures and institutions, but the heart and soul.”

What better way is there to unite a nation than to point towards some common threats – perhaps with a dramatic flourish - and emphasize the need to band together?

Dr Ng began the discussion by sharing anecdotes from his childhood. He had grown up poor, along with five other siblings, and his family had stayed in one room, sharing the interim three room flat with other families. Within three decades, however, the poverty that his family experienced was broken.

The metrics for Singapore’s success are very telling, be it by looking at the percentage of students who have achieved academically or the employment figures. The system has allowed for such drastic mobility; it is “virtuous” and “had to be protected and nurtured but updated”. It was where Dr Ng had come from that explained why he had found it difficult to divorce himself from what he perceived to be the strengths of this system.

Many questions were asked by an enthusiastic audience. Some wondered about the need for such a strong military. For one, National Service is compulsory for all Singaporean men, and 2nd generation male Permanent Residents. Also, Singapore has a defence budget of around 12.3 billion in 2013, even surpassing its geographically larger and more populous neighbours.

Dr Ng said that these are good questions, ones that we can only ask because Singapore is safe and stable. Should our military defence be found lacking, we would be confronted with an entirely different set of questions. Why is it that you’ve such a weak force? Why did you not perform to expectations? The faith in our defence was won by our predecessors and there is a need to keep respecting and upholding it.

“The stronger you are, the less enemies you have.” In the last five years, the region has changed. There is an ongoing South China Sea dispute between variant claimants, along with instances of tension which are not at all theoretical. If Singapore does not have a firm deterrent force, Singaporeans would have less confidence in the future.

40 years ago, when the Singapore Armed Forces was first founded, very few people believed we could defend Singapore. Now, very few people believe they can test our defence systems without being severely hurt in turn.

Someone else wondered if we need such a high level of capability and if it is time to scale down a bit, perhaps divert the funds into building a more robust social safety system.

Dr Ng assured that the government is a custodian of the people’s time and money, and the tax dollars are spent wisely. The military has been brainstorming on ways to make national service more meaningful, sharper and as long as necessary to raise a credible support. The scientists employed in the defence institutes are very meticulous – any weaponry purchased have been probed very extensively and sometimes, they ask questions that even the manufacturers have to scramble to answer.

Another person wondered about the reasons that prompted Dr Ng to be a politician, despite having been trained in medicine. Mr Viswa Sadasivan, the moderator, cleverly reframed this question and asked if Dr Ng had wasted resources that were spent on his education.

There was a hearty burst of laughter from the audience.

As a surgeon, Dr Ng had cut people up after putting them to sleep. In politics, participants – including him – are cut while they are awake. Upon hearing this, everyone laughed again and the atmosphere was really quite jovial.

Doctors see many people and learn to deal with their emotional and physical pains. Through his medicine training, he had learnt to offer support to those in need, and while he isn’t sure if NUS had wasted a medicine education on him, he is certainly grateful for the lessons he received.

Also, “politics in Singapore is a noble calling.” Because the current climate is a bit robust, good people may shy away from stepping forward and Nature abhors a vacuum. Those who come in may not be the best people, the brightest people with noblest intentions. These reasons, coupled with his growing up experiences, has prompted him to be a politician.

And what about the sacrifices that some have to make, the religious obligations that are neglected due to training schedules? And the treatment of certain races? Is there any security clearance according to racial categorisations?

According to Dr Ng, there are Malay soldiers in every vocation. This seems to suggest that there isn’t security clearance according to racial lines. As for the issue about how to respect religious preferences and requirements, it is a very challenging one. The secular spaces in Singapore are shrinking; preserving common spaces where various religious factions can use is increasingly difficult with growing religiousity.

For example, there may be constituents in his ward who would say, I’m not going to sit on the table if alcohol is served on that table. This eventually leads to segregation along religious lines and weakens the social fabric.

Of course, Singapore can follow the mode of Canada. When Dr Ng visited a school there, he saw two hundred Sikhs in a room. 95% of them were from Punjab. In Canada, migrants are encouraged to preserve their traditions.

Singapore could have formed enclaves according to racial, religious and ethnic lines. The country, however, is well-known for having quotas in the public housing blocks, to ensure a mix of races and nationalities. Is the government right about enforcing such secularism and mixing? Is it wrong? The public has to decide. If the next generation decides to have precincts, then the government’ll have to go ahead.

At this point, Mr Sadasivan shared his experience on a military overseas mission he had attended. That season was very hot and it happened to be the Ramadan. His Muslim soldiers said that they needed to fast even though the cohort had to travel thirty to forty kilometers under the oppressive heat. In a show of support, the entire battalion decided to go without water. These are the memories that have shaped his attitude towards Singapore. He is defined – he chooses to be defined – by this episode instead of others.

The sharing ended off with a question about how to balance the defence budget in relation to the healthcare budget.

The Minister said that the solution is to have an economy that produces enough wealth to satisfy not just healthcare and defence requirements, but also the education and social safety expenses. In the last decade, there are very few countries in the world, if any, with Singapore’s fiscal strength. The Sing dollar is strong, it is appreciating. Even though the government is increasing the social safety nets, they are still spending within the budget.

The day the Singapore economy stops growing will be the day when there is a need to think about where to cut and how to cut spending. That is exactly what is happening in Europe. In Barcelona and Madrid, for example, structural unemployment is high while youth employment is at around 50%. This means that almost half of these youths would spend the best parts of their prime years being unemployed.

In Singapore, the actual number of jobs created for one of the hardest group – those aged 55 to 60 – have grown by 10% in the last five years.

Dr Ng reminded us that we have to guard against a sense of exceptionalism, defend against hubris and realise that the fundamentals that got Singapore here are very precious, very rare and very easy to lose. They can be lost very quickly as many countries in Europe can attest to.

Fortunes can change. The Europeans have great capabilities, great assets that they’ve built up and yet, even nations change and the fates of nations change. It’d be sheer pride and arrogance if Singaporeans don’t believe that they can suffer the same faith. “Our exceptionalism is only exceptional when we’re willing to do the right things.”

With that, Dr Ng ended the sharing to rapturous applause.

The Minister struck me as the most sincere Member-of-Parliament I’ve ever had the privilege to listen to. The other four – including one from the opposition party – were simply too preoccupied with cultivating their public images.

He warned against hubris, speaking of the need to be humble, keep moving on with times, to not be complacent. In this way, he reminds me of my father, with his considered and kindly way of speaking.

However, there is doubt lingering over the content of his words. There are cracks happening in the Singapore system – the escape of Mas Selamat, the infrastructural groans of hospitals and trains, the problematic responses to the ‘Little India Riot’ – all these suggest that the fundamentals underlying the public policies are outmoded or that the government itself has grown sloppy.

Singapore’s development from Third World to First was clearer - perhaps easier - for the blueprints for industrial success have already been well documented. But where to go from here, from this gleaming position of steel and glass, Singapore seems just as confused as other developed nations.

The full Youtube discussion is available here.